Olga Viso’s last year could define the 10 she spent as executive director of Walker Art Center.
This was the year Viso, 51, unveiled her unified campus, with a new entrance that faces and embraces the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The year the Walker completed a $75 million fundraising campaign. The year that Viso, the daughter of Cuban émigrés, put on her most personal show: “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950.”
It’s also the year, of course, of “Scaffold.”
Just before the June unveiling of the Sculpture Garden makeover, controversy erupted over the work by Sam Durant that evoked the gallows used to hang 38 American Indian men in Mankato after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Viso apologized, met with Dakota elders and, with Durant’s blessing, agreed to dismantle the sculpture.
Since then, Viso has earned some surprising allies: Native American artists who, after tough conversations with Viso, stood up for her after the Walker’s abrupt announcement Tuesday that Viso would step down by year end.
In an e-mail, acclaimed author Louise Erdrich said that “losing Olga Viso will be — paradoxically after all that happened with ‘Scaffold’ — a sad thing for the Native community who, after all, have spent much energy and thought on educating her and the Walker.” She continued: “A person who learns from a mistake like ‘Scaffold,’ and who has the humility and grace to ask for knowledge, is truly valuable in a leadership position. Whoever takes her place will start at zero.”
It’s too early to talk legacy. Dozens of Walker staff members have left in recent years, and an independent investigation of the decisions around “Scaffold” hasn’t yet been completed. But those native artists’ support should be part of Viso’s story.
Here is a quick reflection on how Viso’s final year speaks to her decade in charge of one of the nation’s “big five” contemporary-art museums:
The Walker campus: Finally making it all work
On a warm October day, families swarmed the revamped Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, snapping photos of its new sculptures and pushing strollers along new paths.
They served as evidence that Viso had solved the big challenge awaiting her when she succeeded Kathy Halbreich as executive director in 2008: knitting the Walker with the garden across Vineland Place. “We have no idea what will ultimately emerge, but the new director will clearly have to think about how the Sculpture Garden and the museum integrate,” predicted Mike Peel, then vice president of the Walker’s board, in 2007.
That task was quickly complicated by the national financial crisis about to unfold.
“In some ways I think Olga was completing the work Kathy Halbreich had started,” said Tom Fisher, architecture professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Design Center. That meant making sense of the hillside where the Guthrie Theater once stood and rethinking the Hennepin Avenue entrance created by the 2005 expansion, led by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron.
Viso “came to grips with some of the shortcomings of the addition’s design,” Fisher said. A relatively modest new entrance, designed by Minneapolis architects John Cook and Joan Soranno, knits together the distinct visions of directors past. That entrance is “really successful,” said Fisher. The new Sculpture Garden, the final piece of the $41 million campus renovation, is “more connected.”
But Fisher also points to less glamorous work completed during Viso’s tenure, including replacing the brick facade on the Walker’s original, minimal building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.
“She was courageous in realizing you have to spend money on things that nobody’s going to notice,” Fisher said. “I think she leaves the institution — at least from an architectural and facilities point of view — in much better shape than when she arrived.”
The ‘Merce’ model: Art is a multifaceted thing
At several points this year, a gallery inside the Walker became a stage. Dancers clad in pastel leotards sprang forward and skittered backward as a silent crowd watched, rapt.
Those performances were part of a massive exhibition, “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” that made good use of a multimillion-dollar trove the Walker acquired in 2011, thousands of objects created with and for the modern-dance pioneer.
That exhibition also showed off the Walker’s interdisciplinary nature, for which it nabbed, in 2016, a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support nine new artistic commissions. Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator for performing arts, declined to comment last week about Viso’s legacy. But in a short e-mail, he noted that he was headed to New York to oversee the final phases of a theatrical work that will premiere in Minneapolis in February, “part of our Mellon work.”
When she started at the Walker, Viso wanted to make the most of the contemporary art center’s cross-disciplinary mission, as well as its new performing-arts stage and dedicated cinema space. “So few institutions in the country have this kind of platform by which to explore culture,” she said.
During the Cunningham show, the galleries were filled by works by the choreographer’s famous artist friends — floating silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol, rainbow-colored sets created by Frank Stella and luminous, sculptural pieces by Jasper Johns. But there were also videos. Two nights of “Music for Merce,” featuring longtime collaborators. And, in the galleries, Cunningham dancers moved to music by local musicians.
In an effusive review, the New York Times praised the show, noting that “dance, marvelously, pervades this exhibition.”
Native voices: Listening after a big mistake
Durant, who is white, meant “Scaffold” to be a critique of capital punishment, basing it on the gallows used for seven U.S. government executions. Protesters argued that erecting that work in a Minneapolis park, on former Dakota land, was an act of trauma — not art. Durant ceded intellectual property rights to the Dakota, who decided to bury the sculpture’s wood in an undisclosed spot.
Viso — who had championed the work after spotting at an exhibition in Germany — called her mistake “a sobering call to action.”
“I have to acknowledge that and wrestle with that and live with that and own up to that,” she said in an interview last month.
Museum leaders across the country watched carefully as the controversy played out in Minnesota, just as they did protests over a painting of Emmett Till by a white artist at the Whitney Biennial in New York City last spring, as they did the removal of works that involved animals at the Guggenheim Museum this fall.
“We’re all highly sensitive right now to identity politics in America,” said Minneapolis Institute of Art director Kaywin Feldman in an interview last month. Museums are “smack in the middle of it because we house human culture, we house identity.”
While nationally, many leaders have strong opinions about whether it was right to take the sculpture down, she continued, “I think Olga’s decisiveness and conviction have been widely admired.”
One curator, in the New York Times, argued that the Walker’s decision to “destroy the work by burying it, ceding any materials and intellectual property to the Dakota along the way,” was a creative solution, one that added meaning to the work.
Then came a touring retrospective of Jimmie Durham, an artist who has identified himself as Cherokee, despite not being recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations. During a June meeting with Viso that lasted four hours, Erdrich, Lakota artist Dyani White Hawk and two other native artists urged her to make changes to the exhibition.
In response, the Walker added a disclaimer to the show, tweaked the introduction and edited language throughout the galleries. It hosted a roundtable with Native American artists.
“She’s been open, she’s been receptive, she’s listened,” White Hawk said. “Then she’s acted on that listening, which not everybody does.”
White Hawk, former director of Minneapolis’ All My Relations Gallery, worries that Viso’s departure could halt progress the Walker has made. She hopes the board hires an administrator who is committed to artists and underrepresented voices. “She didn’t have to meet with me,” White Hawk said. “She didn’t have to have open meetings with the community ... none of that was required. But she chose to open her doors.”
A curatorial eye: Putting artists first
Two weeks before “Adiós Utopia” opened, the galleries still smelled like fresh paint. Artworks remained in crates, paper printouts hung in their place. Viso walked through, making notes and changes.
“I’m not sure whether the art stands out as much as this graphic,” she said, looking up at the massive block letters at the exhibition’s start.
By the day’s end, that text would shrink, the artworks would move.
“What I enjoy the most is being in the galleries, installing,” Viso said recently. That’s “where the staff’s talents and expertise come together [to] deepen the artistic intent.”
Three Cuban curators assembled this show. But it’s Viso’s show, too, one of several she’s intimately overseen at the Walker.
Her touches are all over it. She convinced the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which she ran before coming to Minneapolis in 2008, to lend a delicate sculpture — made of plaster, soil and the artist’s blood — she purchased while there. She edited much of the text for the wall labels, in English and Spanish. One artist, Glenda Leon, set the height of her installation, a butterfly unable to open its wings, at a point on the wall just above Viso’s outstretched hand.
“In her heart, she’s a curator,” said Aaron Spangler, a sculptor whose bronze “Bog Walker” is one of 17 new pieces in the revamped sculpture garden. Several times, Viso trekked to his studio in tiny Two Inlets, Minn., pop. 237, to see not only his work but his setting and surroundings. Spangler, who built his art career in New York, was surprised to be “welcomed and considered as an artist living four hours north of the city,” he said. “Rural artists aren’t often considered.”
She paid attention to artists of color, too. From 2008 to 2016, the share of artists of color in the Walker's collections rose from 7 percent to 10 percent. The percentage of women ticked up slightly, from 20 to 22 percent. The share of local artists remained at 10 percent. (It takes work to budge those numbers, as there are more than 14,000 works in the center's collections.)
“Olga is a director that consistently places the artist first, giving them the space to be innovative, take risks and challenge the status quo,” said Chris Larson, a St. Paul artist whose Walker exhibit “Land Speed Record” closed in January. “She believes in artists.”
Rohan Preston contributed to this report.